TRIPOLI, Libya — Sometimes war sounds like the harsh crack of gunfire and sometimes like the whisper of the wind. This early morning — in al-Yarmouk on the southern edge of Libya's capital, Tripoli — it was a mix of both.
All around, shops were shuttered and homes emptied, except for those in the hands of the militiamen who make up the army of the Government of National Accord (GNA), the U.N.-backed, internationally recognized government of Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj. The war had slept in this morning and all was quiet until the rattle of a machine gun suddenly broke the calm.
A day earlier, I had spent hours on the roof of my hotel, listening to the basso profundo echo of artillery as dark torrents of smoke rose from explosions in this and several other outlying neighborhoods. The GNA was doing battle with the self-styled Libyan National Army of warlord Khalifa Haftar, a U.S. citizen, former CIA asset, and longtime resident of Virginia, who was lauded by President Donald Trump in an April phone call. Watching the war from this perch brought me back to another time in my life when I wrote about war from a far greater distance — of both time and space — a war I covered decades after the fact, the one that Americans still call "Vietnam" but the Vietnamese know as "the American War."
During the early years of U.S. involvement there, watching the war from the hotels of Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam, was a rite of passage for American journalists and the signature line of unfortunate articles that often said far more about the state of war reporting than the state of the war. "On clear days patrons lunching in the ninth-floor restaurant in the Caravelle Hotel can watch Government planes dropping napalm on guerrillas across the Saigon River," Hedrick Smith wrote in a December 1963 New York Times article.
As that war ground on, the pastime of hotel war-watching never seemed to end, despite a recognition of the practice for what it was. Musing about the spring of 1968 in his fever dream memoir, , Esquire's correspondent in Vietnam, Michael Herr, wrote:
"In the early evenings we'd do exactly what the correspondents did in those terrible stories that would circulate in 1964 and 1965, we'd stand on the roof of the Caravelle Hotel having drinks and watch the airstrikes across the river, so close that a good telephoto lens would pick up the markings on the planes. There were dozens of us up there, like aristocrats viewing Borodino from the heights, at least as detached about it as that even though many of us had been caught under those things from time to time."